“The Seven Last Words of the Church”

seven-last-words“Jesus said to them, “Isaiah prophesied rightly about you hypocrites, as it is written, ‘This people honors me with their lips, but their hearts are far from me; in vain do they worship me, teaching human precepts as doctrines.’ You abandon the commandment of God and hold to human tradition.” – Mark 7:6-8

Some of the scribes and Pharisees questioned Jesus as to why his disciples had not washed their hands before eating, as was “the custom of the elders.” He chastised them for their slavish devotion to custom, while neglecting their relationship with God.

Our customs and traditions are important for institutional continuity and for doing things in the church “decently and in order.” But customs followed for their own sake can stifle needed change and quench the flame of the Spirit.

A pastor friend of mine once told me about being in a church meeting. He said, “I knew it was time for me to move on when I heard someone say, ‘We’ve never done it that way before,’ and I realized it was me!”

Early in my ministry I was told that “We’ve never done it that way before” were the “seven last words of the church.”

The church is gathered to hear God’s life-giving promises and the Good News of God’s great love for us in Jesus Christ. But sometimes we get diverted from our true focus, and become bogged down by ephemera such as the placement of the chancel furniture, the color of the hymnal covers, or the method of serving communion. God, have mercy!

Prayer

Living and loving God, never let our customs and traditions become more important to us than you. Turn us again to your love, through Jesus Christ our Savior.

(This is my United Church of Christ Daily Devotional for February 4, 2017. To see the original go here. To subscribe to the Daily Devotional and receive it every day by e-mail go here.)

“Our Nation of Immigrants”

strangers“You shall also love the stranger, for you were strangers in the land of Egypt.” —Deuteronomy 10:19

The various summaries of the law in the Bible include strangers as people to be especially cared for. Whether we call them sojourners, immigrants or aliens they need help because they are frequently socially powerless.

So God’s people are commanded to care for these special ones. Our passage today reminds the Israelites that they had once been strangers in the land of Egypt. They knew how it felt to be treated unfairly. This memory was an abiding feature of their identity as a people, and they were admonished never to forget it.

My own family is a microcosm of our nation of immigrants. My forbears fled here to escape persecution or sometimes just to seek a better life. My grandfather’s people, French Huguenots, fled religious violence in the 17th century. My wife’s Greek grandparents escaped “ethnic cleansing” in Turkey. Her Jewish grandfather was a Holocaust survivor, and his family came here after the war. Such refugees were called “displaced persons” or DP’s.

These are our stories, not merely here in America, but throughout the world. There are still many “displaced persons” among the human family. They face unique challenges every day.

God regards them with special care and so should we, for we too were once strangers, far from home.

Prayer: Let us love the strangers among us as you do, O God, and never let us forget that we were once like them.

(This is my United Church of Christ Daily Devotional for February 27, 2015. It was titled “Once We Were Strangers.” In light of today’s new restricted immigration policies I decided it was worth repeating. To see the original go here. To subscribe to the Daily Devotional and receive it every day by e-mail go here.)

“Looking for Light in the Shadow of Death” A Sermon on Matthew 4:12-23

shadow

“The people who walked in darkness have seen a great light, and those who sat in the region and shadow of death light has dawned.”

The “Shadow of Death.” That doesn’t sound very good, does it?

I asked Rabbi Josh Breindel of Temple Anshe Amunim in Pittsfield about the phrase and he said it is quite literally “shadow of death” in Hebrew. He said it is a colloquial saying and means something like “mortal peril.” We are all acquainted with that image from the 23rd Psalm: “Yea, though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death, I shall fear no evil, for Thou art with me.”

Two of the traditional themes for the Epiphany season are “light shining in the darkness” and the “calling to Christian discipleship,” and I hope to combine them today. Continue reading

“Helping those who have no helper”

helper“For he delivers the needy when they call, the poor and those who have no helper.”
—Psalm 72: 12

Psalm 72 begins “Give the king your justice, O God.” It implies that justice is a God-given matter, and though in our time we have no king, the seeking of justice remains one of the marks of authentic government. Continue reading

My Top Ten Posts from 2016

cropped-winter-11Once again as the old year passes and the new year beckons, it is my custom to look back at my most popular posts of the year. Some years a theme emerges, and this year it is the passing of old friends and mentors. Three of my professors from seminary died within a few weeks of each other early in the year, and my tributes to and remembrances of them were among the most popular posts.

Here in order are the most visited new posts from 2016:

A Prayer for Christmas (and for our time) from Karl Barth

A Tribute to Meredith Brook “Jerry” Handspicker 1932-2016

“Of Fig Trees and Second Chances” A Sermon on Luke 13:6-9

Remembering William L. Holladay

Let us not treat this wound too lightly. Reconciliation requires repentance

Mike Maguire and Me: Recollections from Long Ago

“Rich in Things and Poor in Soul” A Sermon on Luke 12:13-21

A tribute to Max L. Stackhouse

“Holy Weeping’ A Sermon on Romans 12:19 and Revelation 21:1-4

“Known knowns, known unknowns,” and the New Testament

As in previous years certain posts have had real staying power. Many of these are sermons that desperate preachers found on search engines. For example, my sermon for the Third Sunday of Advent was the number one entry if you Googled “Sermon for the Third Sunday of Advent.” Consequently, I saw extraordinary spikes in traffic the week before.

So here are my all-time top ten posts since I started “When I Survey . . .” in 2009:

Why did Jesus refer to Herod as “That fox” in Luke 13:32”?

“Rejoice! Rejoice!” A Sermon for the Third Sunday of Advent

“Prayer for a Retired Pastor“

God Gives the Growth,” A Retirement Sermon

“The Lord Will Provide:” A Sermon on Genesis 22

“There is nothing to be afraid of!” A Sermon on Psalm 27:1-2

An Ordination Sermon: The Secret Sauce of Ministry. A Recipe in Two Parts

“God With Us” A Sermon for the Fourth Sunday of Advent

“Behind Locked Doors” A Sermon on John 20:24

“The Message of the Cross” A Sermon on 1 Corinthians 1:23-25

Another milestone for this blog is that it reached 100 followers this year. So I thank you all for your interest and support. Come back and visit now and again in 2017.

Emmanuel, Come to Us! A Prayer for our World at Christmas

sunsetO God of wondrous grace and holy love, we give you thanks and praise that you entered into our world to share our messy humanity. In this holy season we are quick to speak and sing of your majesty, mystery, glory and might. Yet this season reminds us that you are not a distant God, but come close to us in Jesus Christ, your Word made flesh. He is Emmanuel, God with us, and in and through him you are with us in all the comings and goings, the beings and doings, of our days. Continue reading